York Town Square

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This photo gives a sense of the scale of the 2004 courthouse, the York County Judicial Center. When you figure those men are about 6-feet-tall, you can conclude that the county court system has expanded. The original two-story courthouse measured 45 feet by 45 feet. (YDR file photo).

Don’t forget this birthday: York County will light 3 bright domed candles for its 270th anniversary


York County was approaching the fifth anniversary of its birth from Lancaster County, a delivery that took place in 1749.

The time had come for a center to handle the judicial affairs of a county that stretched from the Susquehanna River to the mountains looming 50 miles to the west.

County Commissioners Bartholomew Maul, John Mickle and James Agnew placed their thumbprints on all construction phases of a two-story center for justice.

They contracted with Henry Clark of Warrington Township to supply lumber. Joseph Welschance would do the smith work: straps, bolts hooks and hinges.

Anna Mary and Christopher Dottenheffer would furnish unslaked lime. Robert Jones received the contract to transport 7,000 shingles from Philadelphia.

The commissioners contracted with William Willis to make “well-burnt” bricks, 9 inches long, 4 ¼ inches in breadth and 2 ¼ inches thick.

Willis would build the walls of the courthouse “in sufficient workman-like manner”

For two years, Willis and other builders worked on the 45-by-45-foot building.

When finished, the square building stood tall where High and George streets crossed in the center of York Town.

Aug. 19 marks the 265th anniversary of the courthouse’s groundbreaking and the 270th anniversary of York County, the fifth of 67 counties formed in Pennsylvania and the first west of the Susquehanna River.

Tours of the York County Administrative Center in celebration of the county’s 270th anniversary are set every half hour from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., on Aug. 19, and there will be a ringing of the old courthouse’s bells and a lighting of its domes at 8:30 p.m. You can sign up for the tours at: https://tinyurl.com/y6zhtjkc.

The following are seven questions and answers about York County and its courthouses:

This November 2002 scene shows the York County Judicial Center under construction. That’s the old courthouse with its familiar domes nearby. Those domes will be lit at 8:30 p.m., August 19, as part of the county’s 270th anniversary celebration. (YDR file)

Why did York County separate from Lancaster County?

Rampant crime. Settlers living west of the Susquehanna River sought protection from criminal acts, meaning a sheriff, jail and court system.

Indeed, the remote parts of future York County – and that was most of it – were known to be places of refuge for “idle and dissolute Persons,” known for theft and other crimes.

Where did York County get its name?

York, the White Rose City, and Lancaster, its Red Rose counterpart, and their respective counties take their nicknames from 15th-century England.

The War of the Roses, a lengthy series of bloody battles between the houses of Lancaster and York, ended in 1485. That year, Henry VII of the House of Lancaster defeated Richard III of York and united the royal family by marrying Elizabeth of York. (The move temporarily stabilized England but produced a terrifying offspring: King Henry VIII.)

Located in an English proprietorship, many early Pennsylvania settlements gained their names from English towns and royal families, despite the large number of Pennsylvania Dutch inhabiting them.

When were York County’s current boundaries laid out?

In the same way that York County was erected from Lancaster, Adams County separated from York in 1800. It was named for President John Adams.

York County measured about 900 square miles.

Cumberland County, meanwhile, separated from Lancaster in 1750, a year after the formation of its neighbor, York County.

How long did that original courthouse serve county residents?

The Centre Square Courthouse served residents until its demolition in 1841.

For nine months in 1777-78, it had hosted the Continental Congress, made up of John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other founders. There, the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, was adopted and sent out to the states for ratification.

A replica of this original courthouse, built in 1976, stands on the east bank of the Codorus Creek.

Early on, market sheds stood near the courthouse in Centre Square. In the 1790s, a county office building went up next to the courthouse.

Only market sheds remained in the square after demolition in 1841.

What replaced this Centre Square seat of justice?

The second courthouse was constructed on the site of the current York County Administrative Center. Its new East Market Street location signaled that agriculture, commerce and trade, as represented by those Centre Square market sheds, had become more important than county government and the courts.

To underscore this, county residents complained about the $100,000 price tag of this new courthouse with a façade marked by six granite pillars.

This same courthouse served as the seat of Confederate martial law when the rebels invaded York for about two days in late-June 1863. Confederate Gen. Jubal Early held court there, demanding food, clothes, boots and cash from the occupied town.

What followed courthouse No. 2?

The county’s growth in the Industrial Revolution brought the demand for a new courthouse in the late 1800s. The county contracted with noted York-based Dempwolf architectural firm for its design.

County and criminal justice offices fanned out to temporary quarters, Courthouse No. 2 was pulled down and the current administrative center was constructed on its former site.

It featured a main 155-foot dome and two 106-foot domes, plus the six granite columns from its predecessor were designed into its façade.

In the growth years after World War II, the need for county office and courtroom space pressed Courthouse No. 3. At one point, the Dempwolf firm was asked to draw up plans for a courthouse of modern design to replace the 50-year-old domed structure designed by the previous generation of the same firm.

Those plans gave way to the construction of wings on the current structure in 1959, 60 years ago.

By the turn of the millennium and facing a population that neared 400,000, the commissioners put forth plans to build a new judicial center at North George and East Philadelphia streets. That courthouse, No. 4, was dedicated in 2004.

For the first time, county officials kept the previous courthouse standing. Today, 120-year-old Courthouse No. 3 serves as the county administrative center.

History since the mid-1750s shows that county and court facilities demand an expansion roughly every 50 to 60 years.

After the new judicial center went up, work began on renovating the old courthouse, now called the York County Administrative Center. The dome lighting is part of a larger Downtown York initiative to illuminate facades to improve lighting for pedestrians.

What major countywide celebrations lay ahead?

Three marquee events are coming:

In 2024, York County will celebrate its 275th anniversary.

Two years later, in 2026, the county and the nation will observe the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Then in 2027, the county will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in York.

Sources: Jim McClure’s “Never to be Forgotten,” “Nine Months in York Town,” and York Town Square blog; June Burk Lloyd’s Universal York blog.